Next Tuesday, 31st October, the West will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, which for many began the path of individual freedom from religious tyranny.
It was on that date that Martin Luther made his protest against the sale of indulgences and the authority of the pope, though whether he actually nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, where he preached, is doubtful.
“Here I stand, I can do no other” – the words Luther allegedly declared at the Diet of Worms – is a great rallying cry for freedom of thought. Yet the irony is that Luther didn’t believe in such an idea at all.
When in 1524 the Dutch humanist Erasmus wrote A Diatribe or Sermon on the freedom of the Will in which he asserted that man is free to accept or reject the grace of God, Luther replied a year later with On Unfree Will in which he attacked Erasmus and affirmed his belief in predestination.
The truth is that Erasmus was a greater critic of the Catholic Church than Luther and had said it all before him. In Julius Exclusus (1514), he ridiculed Julius II, accused him of corruption and imaged him being sent away from the gates of heaven by St Peter.
And in Paracelus, the 1516 preface to his translation of the New Testament, he maintained that the truest link to Jesus was through the scriptures, which is exactly what Luther argued in his 95 Theses a year later.
The best known work of Erasmus, In Praise of Folly (‘Moriae Enconium) is a vitriolic satire of the traditions of the Catholic Church, clerical corruption and a host of popular superstitions including pardons and indulgences.
Monks are ‘brainstick fools’ and popes “allow Christ to be forgotten, lock him up behind their money-making laws... and murder him with their atrocious manner of life”.
In Praise of Folly was written in 1509 while Erasmus was staying at the house of Thomas More and dedicated to his host and fellow humanist.
Despite Hilary Mantel’s fictional rewriting of history, it was More who floated radical egalitarian ideas in Utopia and who in 1523 introduced the first petition in Parliament in favour of freedom of speech.
In it he asked Henry VIII to grant every MP permission “freely, without fear of your dreaded displeasure, to speak his conscience and boldly declare his advice concerning everything that comes up among us”.
It was Renaissance humanists like Erasmus and More who created the intellectual climate in which in which freedom of thought and reason could develop.
But of course this triumph did not come about by intellectual culture alone. Luther survived excommunication because Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony – known to history as Frederick the Wise – hid him in his castle at Wartburg and, when the heat was off, Luther was free to organise his own church.
Frederick was acting politically in his own secular interest, just as Henry VIII did in England in the 1530s. The success of the Reformation was thus made possible by the appearance of these strong monarchs who were prepared to challenge the power of the pope and increase their own power.
What the Reformation did was to bring about a new set of political and social conditions under which freedom could ultimately be secured. But nothing was further from the minds of men like Luther and later John Calvin than the toleration of opinions differing from their own.
Reformers like Luther and Calvin were closer to the Catholic Church than to Humanists like Erasmus. Both replaced one tyranny with another – the tyranny of the Bible instead of the tyranny of the Church – though of course it was the Bible according to Luther or the Bible according to Calvin.
When he was safe and had some power, Luther asserted that it was the duty of the state to impose the ‘true’ doctrine and eradicate heresy. Thus Anabaptists should be put to the sword and in his treatise On the Jews and their Lies (1543) Jews, as the murderers of Jesus, should be slain.
John Calvin, unlike Luther, did not advocate the absolute power of the civil ruler. He stood for the opposite: the control of the state by the church. In other words, he favoured a theocracy, which is what he established in Geneva when he was given the opportunity by the city council.
Liberty was completely crushed and ‘false’ doctrines were punished by imprisonment, exile and death. Thus the Spaniard Michael Servetus, who criticised the doctrine of the Trinity and the concept of predestination, was tried for heresy and committed to the flames in 1553.
The true test of a commitment to liberty and freedom of speech is not in the struggle to remove tyranny but whether you grant that freedom to your opponents when you have the power to do so. Both Luther and Calvin failed this test by showing themselves to be as illiberal and intolerant as the priests and popes whom they criticised.
After Luther’s demise in 1546, Lutheran princes combined to fight for their independence from the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and soon Europe was plunged into a century of religious wars in which possibly 12 million people were killed.
They were concluded in Europe with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which agreed that people would assume the Christian denomination of their ruler – hardly a liberal outcome. In Ireland, of course, the fighting between Catholic and Protestant was only just beginning and, alas, has continued into the modern era.
Thus Luther’s Reformation lead to the permanent division of western Christendom and the further splintering of Protestantism itself. Whether this was a good thing or not is partly for Christians to decide, but it is hardly beneficial to society in general if the divisions cause sectarian strife or worse. In this sense, Christianity has failed in Ireland.
On a broad historical scale the Reformation was a step away from superstition towards secularism, but in its early years it clearly proved to be a mirror image of the Catholic hegemony beforehand.
If it helped the cause of liberty, this result was an unintended consequence of its founders.
It is not Luther who is the real champion of free thought, but Erasmus and the other Humanists of the Renaissance. They are our true champions.
• Brian McClinton is editor of Irish Freethinker